The relative inefficiency of respiratory mucosal immune function during infancy is generally attributed to the immaturity of the neonatal T cell system. However, immune competence in the adult lung has recently been shown to be closely linked to the functional capacity of local networks of intraepithelial dendritic cells (DC). This study examines the density and distribution of these DC throughout the neonatal respiratory tract in rats, focusing particularly on microenvironmental regulation of their class II major histocompatibility complex (MHC) (Ia) expression. In animals housed under dust-controlled conditions, airway epithelial and alveolar Ia+ DC detectable by immunostaining with the monoclonal antibody (mAb) Ox6 are usually not seen until day 2-3 after birth, and adult-equivalent staining patterns are not observed until after weaning. In contrast, the mAb Ox62 detects large numbers of DC in fetal, infant, and adult rat airway epithelium. Costaining of these Ox62+ DC with Ox6 is rare in the neonate and increases progressively throughout infancy, and by weaning Ia+ DC comprised, on average, 65% of the overall intraepithelial DC population. In infant rats, Ia+ DC are observed first at the base of the nasal turbinates, sites of maximum exposure to inhaled particulates, suggesting that their maturation is driven in part by inflammatory stimuli. Consistent with this suggestion, densitometric analysis of Ia staining intensity of individual DC demonstrates that by 2-3 d after birth, Ia expression by nasal epithelial DC was comparable with that of Iahigh epidermal Langerhans cells in adjacent facial skin, at a time when expression by tracheal epithelial DC was 7-10-fold lower. Additionally, the rate of postnatal appearance of Iahigh DC in the airway epithelium was increased by administration of interferon gamma, and decreased by exposure of infant rats to aerosolized steroid. These findings collectively suggest that Ia expression by neonatal respiratory tract DC is locally controlled and can be upregulated by mediators that are produced within the lung and airway epithelium in response to inhalation of proinflammatory stimuli. It was also noted that Ialow neonatal airway DC expressed adult equivalent levels of class I MHC, which suggests differences in capacity to prime for CD8(+)-dependent versus CD4(+)-dependent immunity to inhaled pathogens, during the early postnatal period.